We present a theoretical analysis of a new one-dimensional laser-cooling scheme that was recently demonstrated on a beam of metastable 4He atoms. Both internal and translational degrees of freedom are treated quantum mechanically. Unlike semiclassical approaches, such a treatment can be applied to situations in which the atomic coherence length is of the same order of or larger than the laser wavelength, which is the case for atoms cooled below the one-photon recoil energy. We introduce families of states that are closed with respect to absorption and stimulated emission, and we establish the generalized optical Bloch equations that are satisfied by the corresponding matrix elements. The existence of velocity-selective trapping states that are linear combinations of states with different internal and translational quantum numbers is demonstrated, and the mechanism of accumulation of atoms in these trapping states by fluorescence cycles is analyzed. From a numerical solution of the generalized optical Bloch equations, we study in detail how the final atomic-momentum distribution depends on the various physical parameters: interaction time, width of the initial distribution, laser detuning, laser power, and imbalance between the two counterpropagating waves. We show that the final temperature decreases when the interaction time increases, so that there is no fundamental limit to the lowest temperature that can be achieved by such a method. Finally, possible extensions of this method to two-dimensional cooling are presented.
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